• 19 . 02 . 11
  • In which I try for a long time to describe Chiang Mai without using the word “love”, then give up and use it in the first sentence.

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Northern Soul

I don’t love many things, but I do love Chiang Mai. It has so much more character than Bangkok that it is hard to believe it is still one of Thailand’s largest cities with 1.6m inhabitants. Similarly to Chester, ancient walls surround an old centre which is the historical and cultural heart of the city. Though mostly ruined, the walls define a neat square which surrounds a lot of the most important sites. With relatively few tall buildings here, the numerous temples feel much more comfortable in their surroundings, unlike Bangkok where everything fights for room; concrete trees reaching for the sunlight and blocking out all below the grey canopy. Though greater Chiang Mai itself sprawls out across the plains in all directions, and tourism is now firmly a part of life here, the centre has managed to retain a small-town feel and so far avoided succumbing to the chase of the almighty dollar.

A lot of my goodwill is surely down to the fantastic accommodation we have found here at Sawasdee Guesthouse, owned and administrated by the extremely friendly Sam and Mo. With free breakfast, fresh fruit all day, clean rooms, free bike loans and free broadband, it isn’t really very much like backpacking at all! They have been invaluable in helping us arrange trips and letting us know what we can go out and do on our own without the need for guides.

One such place is Doi Suthep, a beautiful temple situated on top of a mountain to the north of the city. A 45 minute songthaew ride takes you out of the city and up switchbacks to a height of about 1100m. If you are lucky, you might even find a driver who takes his foot off the accelerator for the hairpin turns, though we didn’t and still survived. Did you know that it is possible to powerslide a pickup truck, even when it has 4 passengers, 2 benches and a roof over the tray? 300 steps takes you to the summit, past hawkers and market stalls, which are pleasantly free of harassment and begging. I was shaken down for 22 Baht by two cute little girls in traditional Thai clothes who shyly asked for money for a photo of them. They started at 1 Baht, but I managed to haggle them up. While the sights of the city aren’t as spectacular as I’d imagined – even Chiang Mai has a haze about it, the temple complex itself has to be seen to be believed. Though small (you could walk the whole place in one minute), it is a testament to the beauty and detail that we stayed for almost an hour.

Earlier in the week, we had taken a great Thai cooking class. Though many are on offer in Chiang Mai, this one was unique in actually taking us out of the city to Lamphun province in the south. A train ride took us to the small town of Pa Sao, where we alighted and took rented bicycles out to the school. A bike tour around the town to local farms, herb gardens, and even a garlic processing factory showed us where the ingredients came from before we got down to the serious business of cooking. Who knew green curry paste had so many base components and that you needed an odd number of chillies for it to taste good (not wholly convinced about the science behind that one)? Who knew there were three kinds of basil in Thai food and that they all tasted so different (like aniseed, lemon and, well, basil)? Lots of people I guess, and now I do too. Under the keen guidance of (Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi) Oi, our lovely teacher, I managed to make 6 dishes that weren’t just tolerable, but were genuinely tasty. We even got recipe books, so I can inflict some culinary mischief on friends and family in the future!

With treks and national parks to come, as well as another attempt at finding the night markets – we’ll take a map this time, there is plenty more to see and do before we head off. I’m glad we took the advice of friends who said to stay longer in the north. It has certainly paid off.

It’s strange to say, with no family nearby, no possessions save what I’m carrying and no fixed abode, but one week into this journey and I’m very much at home.